hat a difficult, complicated, roller-coaster relationship the United States and Pakistan have had. Is there any way to smooth out the huge bumps in this ongoing and manifestly important relationship and put it on a more sustainable and mutually beneficial path? Two new books focused exclusively on this relationship, both of them very good and consummately fair, answer “maybe.” In light of the relationship’s history, a “maybe” is an optimistic reading of the future.
That our two authors come at the question from very different starting points, and deploy somewhat different methods, is some additional reason for hope. Husain Haqqani has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, a tenure that was not free of controversy and trouble all around. He was an unusual Ambassador to begin with; unlike most who come from abroad to serve in Washington, Haqqani was for years prior to his appointment well known in U.S. academic and policy circles. His overall approach in Magnificent Delusions is rich with anecdote, making for what might be called, borrowing a term from anthropology, diplomatic “thick description.” The anecdotes in turn come mainly from government-to-government exchanges, some of which Haqqani saw or was involved in first-hand, some not. As he goes through this somewhat highbrow “he said, she said, and then he said” account, he drops general observations and judgments along the way.
Daniel S. Markey, meanwhile, served on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, responsible for South Asia, before moving on to the Council on Foreign Relations just as Haqqani arrived at the embassy. Markey is less interested in the early days of the new Pakistani state than he is in the later history of the relationship. His approach in No Exit from Pakistan, though informed by a close familiarity with cable traffic both old and new, takes a more standard analytical approach.
Despite the different approaches, both books describe how each country at various times and in various ways has tried to use the other in a manner, shall we say, oblique to what a friendly and candid relationship would be. This approach has often been detrimental to both countries, and hence to the relationship between them. But it has in a sense been inevitable, since U.S. and Pakistani interests overlap only sparingly—yet both sides have wanted for reasons of diplomatic optics, or needed on account of vital interests, a relationship closer than its frail strategic logic could sustain.
In consequence, neither book exudes optimism that the relationship can be fundamentally or easily improved. Neither Haqqani, looking at the relationship from Islamabad, nor Markey, looking at it from Washington, is foolish enough to claim he knows how to fix once and for all Pakistan’s bilateral relationship with the United States, let alone the bulging portfolio of Pakistan’s relationships with its neighbors. But they both understand that the way forward cannot be discerned, let alone planned for by either side, unless the past is understood without rancor, fantasy or excessive emotion. That alone is a rare feat in discussions of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Take it from us: We’ve both spent a lot of time in Pakistan and have had a lot of conversations about the U.S.-Pakistani relationship over the years.
usain Haqqani usefully begins with the creation of Pakistan and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s particular role in shaping it. Jinnah, indeed, almost single-handedly brought forth a new state, and his personality set the pattern of that state’s future. Unable to obtain sufficient autonomy for the Muslims of India as the British Raj deteriorated after World War II, Jinnah opted for independence. From that moment on Islam became the centerpoint or raison d‘être for Pakistan. However, Jinnah’s Islam was about social and national identity; it was not translated at the beginning into specific political terms, and it certainly was not about theology. Jinnah was not a traditionally religious man.
In addition to Islam, Jinnah looked to other sources of support, especially from the United States, for the weak and territorially split state of Pakistan against its much more powerful neighbor India. Clearly, these early ideas—Islam as the identifier, India as the threat, and outside support as the essential ballast to compensate for Pakistan’s existential weaknesses—set the thrust of Pakistan’s foreign policy after 1947. Within 18 months of independence, Jinnah died, leaving the country lacking both charismatic leadership and any strong or even functioning political institutions. The army moved into the vacuum and a second, long-lasting pattern in Pakistani political life took root.
Haqqani vividly illustrates how Jinnah shrewdly played the emergent Cold War card to enter the inner sancta of America’s good graces. Those sancta soon included membership in two U.S.-authored multilateral pacts, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). India during this period took a non-aligned course that was both disappointing and highly unpopular in the United States. Pakistani authorities allowed the United States to establish a listening post in the northern part of the country, near Peshawar, and to refurbish an airfield there for the purpose of launching of U-2 surveillance flights over the Soviet Union. (Francis Gary Powers had taken off from that base on his ill-fated sortie over Soviet airspace on May 1, 1960.) In exchange, the United States provided military and economic assistance to Pakistan.
Pakistan emerged from the limited but still major 1965 war with India over Kashmir, which it started and lost, in a weakened state. The Johnson Administration, with congressional support, cut off U.S. military assistance to Pakistan, compounding the military and political blow of having lost the war. Haqqani’s account is quick-paced and vivid; even those already familiar with the historical outline will likely learn much and enjoy the ride.
Thanks in part to the sharp curtailment of U.S. aid after 1965, the Pakistani economy tanked. In early March 1969 General Ayub Khan resigned the presidency, and Army Chief of Staff General Agha Yahya Khan became Pakistan’s martial law President. Yahya called for elections in December. The elections were free and fair, and that became the new President’s problem. Yahya refused to accept the political verdict, which gave the Awami League an absolute majority in East Pakistan. Civil war then broke out, accompanied by huge refugee outflows from East Pakistan into India. After nearly two years of growing mayhem following the elections, the Indians prepared to intervene in December 1971. Following a preemptive Pakistani air raid loosely modeled on the Israeli campaign of early June 1967, India defeated the Pakistani army on all fronts and midwifed the birth of Bangladesh out of the ruins of East Pakistan. Indian forces took tens of thousands of prisoners; the Soviet Union organized the meeting that formally brought the conflict to an end.
Thus Pakistan lost half its territory and popular trust in the army plummeted. This brought Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power. In fairly short order he also declared martial law, and to shore up his position he named General Zia ul-Haq as Chief of the Army Staff. Zia soon arrested Bhutto and had him executed in 1977. Zia then introduced a far stricter form of Islam in Pakistan, with the aim of providing greater civilian support for his military government. To bolster Pakistan’s long-term position with respect to India, he also accelerated Pakistan’s then-nascent nuclear program. Haqqani relates that when Zia was confronted in July 1982 by General Vernon Walters, who had come to Pakistan as a special envoy to discuss Pakistan’s secret purchases of sensitive nuclear technology, Zia denied any knowledge of it. Walters reported to Washington, according to Haqqani, that “Zia insisted that he would not develop a nuclear weapon and would not explode a nuclear device.” Haqqani then cites Walters’s comment: “Either he really does not know, or he is the most superb and patriotic liar I have ever met.”
arkey, whose account reviews this critical period as well, has no major differences with Haqqani over the middle years in the bilateral relationship. Both point out how Zia used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 to obtain greatly increased military and economic assistance from the United States, as well as reduced U.S. pressure regarding its nuclear program. With the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, American alarm over Pakistan’s nukes rose to the fore. Pakistani leaders thought the United States would continue to provide assistance, but President George H.W. Bush had other ideas. For a second time in the relationship’s history, U.S. economic and military assistance was severed in cold-turkey fashion, provoking another very predictable crisis in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
As both Haqqani and Markey are at pains to emphasize, 9/11 seemingly changed everything, and yet in a way it didn’t. Change certainly arose from the sudden and acute U.S. need for Pakistani cooperation with regard to its neighbor Afghanistan. President George W. Bush set a short decision period: “Are you with us or against us?” General Pervez Musharraf, who had ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in yet another coup in 1999, basically said “I’m in”, and large-scale U.S. assistance resumed. In time, however, the uneven overlap of the two countries’ interests and perspectives made itself known again.
At the outset the Pakistani military was again high in the saddle, the country’s civilian governments having proved no more successful than their military predecessors. Popular anti-Americanism, however, surged once more. As both Haqqani and Markey see it, the anti-American pulse had several sources. U.S. military action against an Islamic regime in Afghanistan was one of them, as was Musharraf’s cooperation with the United States for related military actions inside Pakistan. Then there was concern from some quarters that, once again, U.S. policy was propping up a military dictator.
Ultimately, however, U.S. foreign policy does not succeed or fail as though it were a popularity contest. The main problem after 9/11 was that the U.S. government wanted Pakistan to take positions and risks with regard to its immediate neighbors that ran against the grain of long-term Pakistani strategic interests. As Markey, especially, points out, not all senior U.S. officials fully understood the way Pakistan looks at its neighborhood and the world, and hoped for a level of cooperation that was never in the cards. The Pakistanis went along to the extent they did because they needed the money, and because become some of their interests did coincide with those of the United States. They figured they could play out the inconsistencies in those interests and do less than the United States wanted without risking a new rupture. This is what Haqqani seems to mean by his title phrase “magnificent delusions”—not so much that the two sides deluded one another so much as they deluded themselves.
With the successful completion of President Asif Ali Zardari’s term, a first for an elected civilian in Pakistan, and the overwhelming election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani democracy has now been consolidated as never before. But the effect of this development on U.S.-Pakistani relations has been only very modest. Both internal developments within Pakistan and relations with the United States remain uncertain. Yet the United States has to stick around, because too many interests remain to justify throwing up our hands and saying to hell with it. That is what Markey is getting at, it would seem, with his Sartrean title invoking “no exit.”
aqqani ends Magnificent Delusions without prescriptions for improving the relationship. The customary list of things to do is simply missing. He writes soberingly that “the constant misunderstandings confirm that Pakistan and the United States have few shared interests and very different political needs.” His formula for improvement thus stresses the redefinition and lowering of expectations on both sides. This is a low bar for improvement, perhaps, but it may be the only realistic one available.
Markey, on the other hand, describes three possible scenarios for the United States in dealing with Pakistan. The first he calls “defensive insulation”, whereby the United States would protect itself from Pakistan’s terrorists, nuclear weapons and other possible dangers with new sanctions and layers of barriers around the trouble Pakistan could cause. If we wanted to work toward a more cooperative relationship, the U.S. government could adopt a “military first” option, identified with a tight focus on national security issues that would leave other concerns in abeyance. A third option would strive for a more comprehensive partnership, to include facilitating major social and political change in Pakistan. Markey does not spend many pages describing what he means by change, but this is the option he supports.
For those who have been involved in policy implementation as well as formulation, it seems clear that Markey’s options would not turn out to be as clear-cut as he describes them were they to be selected. Furthermore, as area experts sometimes do, he may be overstating the importance Pakistan will have for the United States in the future. We are getting out of Afghanistan. The center of the threat posed by al-Qaeda-related terrorism has moved west and south. There is also every indication that the Pakistani military will keep its nuclear program under tight control, with the A.Q. Khan episode now far behind it. The likelihood of Pakistan’s civilian democratic leaders starting or blundering themselves into a war with India seems less likely today than it has ever been, notwithstanding the persistence of many problems and no little lingering distrust.
It is not particularly useful to describe some sort of ideal outcome or happy ending for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, a favorite illusion of writings on the subject that Haqqani and Markey both avoid. On the other hand, we are not as pessimistic as Markey about where the relationship might go. While great and rapid strides forward are not likely, it remains the case that the periods of the closest relationships between the United States and Pakistan have usually been when Pakistan has had strong military leaders working within a civilian government. That is the case now.
It is also worth remembering that Pakistan is still a relatively new country. It can change, and develop its institutions. Pakistan has been declared dead, or nearly so, on many occasions, and yet always manages to rise again. However important the country is or isn’t to the United States, we cannot ignore Pakistan’s geostrategic importance, nor its nuclear weapons. Staying engaged, providing modest amounts of military and economic assistance, lowering tariffs on Pakistani textiles, and managing the relationship as best we can, without unrealistic expectations, may be the best that we can hope for. We think both Haqqani and Markey would agree with that.